On Forgiveness and Repentance

Take a deep breath, dear reader. Why did my last blog post have to be so explicit about childhood trauma?

Because I’m committed to making the world a better place for the teenagers who are now going through what grown-ups spent my teenage years with their eyes closed, pretending couldn’t possibly be happening around them. Because when adults tell me now, as an adult, “I’m sorry that happened to you,” or “I’m sorry I did that to you,” I want to see their verbal “sorry” backed with observable, meaningful action to prevent those harms from happening again. Faith without works is dead.

I don’t tell the stories of my childhood trauma because I’m unhealed; I tell these stories because I have done the work to heal, and I have come to realize that my silence helps no one but abusers. I tell my stories out loud to take away your plausible deniability that this is happening in your own county, your own city, your own communities. I tell my stories so maybe another 11 year old, hurt by the same unjust and abusive systems that began as slave patrols, which we’ve refused to dismantle and re-culture for the past 400+ years, won’t have to tell their stories of childhood abuse 23 years from now.

My mother says if I’ve truly forgiven her, I would let the past go and not bring it up again. But there is another 11 year old to whom my past is still happening. Forgiveness doesn’t mean pretending the harms never happened. Forgiveness is agreeing to work through the mess of repairing the damage rather than holding onto anger about the harm that’s been done. You do not have to be physically present with your abuser while they undertake the work of repentance, to forgive them. Repentance is agreeing to work through the mess of repairing the damage you’ve contributed to, refraining from perpetuating that harm against anyone else again, and taking a stand against allowing that harm to be committed against others again.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean folks of African descent whose grandparents endured chattel slavery should “forget” the harms white people have done to them. Forgiveness means they give us the chance to make reparations and repent.

Repentance means white folks step up to help heal the damage we’ve caused, and stand up against allowing that harm to be committed again. Repentance requires white folks to acknowledge, “I can’t change the past, but I’m going to make this active effort to ensure this harm doesn’t continue to be the next generation’s future any longer.” Repentance means denouncing mistreatment of humans; holding our elected representatives accountable for abuses of the 13th Amendment’s exception clause and its role in the for-profit prison system; holding our local county jails accountable for their worker release program’s failure to pay minimum wage to shackled, enslaved laborers who are disproportionately Black, Indigenous, and/or Latine; and cultivating community resources that divert our neighbors away from prisons, drugs, and crimes against one another, proactively.

Forgiveness from Native American peoples doesn’t mean they stop talking about their experience of colonization ever again just because we feel bad and want to forget our grandparents ever started it. Forgiveness means Native American peoples agree to let white people put our apology into action and contribute to their collective healing. Their forgiveness is an opportunity for us to stop perpetuating harms, and put our sincere desire for a better future into motion by humbling ourselves and offering our energy to restore and rebuild what we’ve unjustly taken from them.

Repentance means we show up for Native Americans in the supportive ways they ask us to, without defensiveness, and take our white discomfort about this to our therapists instead of unleashing our guilt-driven feelings onto people we’re supposed to be making amends to. Repentance means honoring every existing Treaty, giving back custody over lands to the tribes from whom they’ve been taken, investing as much in the search for missing and murdered Indigenous people as we’ve invested in Jon Benet Ramsey and Gabby Petito, and shifting ourselves to non-fossil-fuel sources of energy that do not require white-owned companies to encroach on sacred or Treaty-protected lands held by Native American peoples. If you are not showing up in some way to end the genocide, you do not repent of the genocide, and you are contributing to the ongoing genocide.

Repentance is agreeing to work through the mess of repairing the damage you’ve contributed to, refraining from perpetuating that harm against anyone else again, and taking a stand against allowing that harm to be committed against others again.

I name abuses that I’ve personally experienced because it’s a way to offer everyone who has been complicit in abuse an opportunity to repent. When I’ve made these offers in private, they’ve been dismissed. So now I make the offer publicly, before a wide audience. When people of color take a knee, or protest in the streets, or even just quietly shake their head at me while my white-culture-trained mouth is moving again, I am grateful to them for expressing to me, in the best way they know how, that there is more opportunity for me to repent of my ways of thinking, of doing, and of being that keep causing them harm. I also am sorry that their less-public, less-attention-grabbing efforts fell on un-listening ears for so long.

My mother doesn’t want to hear the opportunity I keep offering her to have a relationship with her own offspring, if she would please, please, please just repent of the abuses she emptily says she’s “sorry” for. This is as simple as not attempting to silence me or deny my identity, and just doing something — literally anything constructive at all — to keep the same abuses from happening again to other children like me. But, abusers take the opportunity to repent as if it’s an attack on their personal character. Abusers want us to pretend the harms never happened, and maintain their comfort at all costs.

Why wouldn’t everyone want to repent and be forgiven by those we’ve wronged? Why does anyone say, “You should talk to your therapist instead of writing online. Not everyone needs to know about the family’s dirty laundry,” as if my therapist can do the work of ending child abuse in your neighborhood for you? As if my therapist can make reparations or call your legislators for you? As if my therapist can show up in November to hold your nose and vote Democrat on your behalf?

As if the point of airing my trauma-stained laundry is for me to feel better, rather than for you to learn something new, discuss these learnings with your neighbors, and do better?

Take a deep breath. We have an opportunity to do better for one another, starting today, here and now. What will you do with the opportunity?


Lots of small-minded folks weaponize BDSM against Queer communities, claiming that we are immoral heathens who can’t be trusted due to the things we do between fully consenting adults. In a twist of immense irony, they ignore the fact that BDSM is often an adaptive strategy we use to cope with the sadistic pain, bondage, and control they exercise over us without our consent.

For example, when I was a teenager I used to write rape fantasies in my diary. I wrote about being choked and physically forced to do things I absolutely would not have consented to and did not want to happen. These fantasies were part of how I coped psychologically with my body being sexualized by all the adults around me from age 10, when I first grew breasts. I felt like maybe if I could write about those fears, if I could turn them into something safely contained in a book like Goosebumps novels did with the monster under the bed, maybe being raped wouldn’t feel so gross when it inevitably happened to me. I thought I could use my words in private pages to turn the kids on my elementary school playground groping my breasts and bullying me, into something that, somehow, I could gain control over. As an 11 year old with an acute sense that men could and would do whatever they wanted with my body whether I allowed it or not, I believed rape was unavoidable forever. And not too long later, in a predictably abusive relationship I stayed in to “prove” I was heterosexual, after a student in my high school attempted to murder me for being Queer, that rape finally did happen.

When my mother invaded my room to read my diary as a teenager while I was at school, I came home to find her sitting with a bookmarked passage in hand. She made me read the rape scene out loud to her and her new husband while I squirmed uncomfortably and cried. What I was forced to read was a private thought, never meant to be shared with her or anyone else. She asked me why I was such a slut, and what I would do if this really happened to me, and told me if I got myself pregnant from “letting” someone rape me, I would have to carry the baby even if it killed me, and live with the punishment for the rest of my life. That’s the kind of humiliation and coercion even many of the most seasoned BDSM veterans I know won’t touch, because it’s the kind that can do irreparable harm to a person’s psyche. In BDSM, we care too much about one another to cause that kind of harm. What my mother did there was violate my consent, dispose of my autonomy, and deny my sense of safety in my own home. She convinced me that if I was raped, it was my own fault. If there were consequences to that rape, I would be the only one burdened with facing them. No wonder I was thinking about intimacy in terms of sexual assault as a young teenager! No one ever taught me I could have my consent respected! No one taught me a place existed where my body was safe. No one around me bothered to create a world where I could even imagine I was safe as a queer teenager.

As an adult, my mother and I went to a family therapy visit once. She brought up those diary entries again, saying that she “had to be” the way she was — controlling, invasive, dominating, forceful, disrespectful, humiliating, shaming — because I was (*gasp!*) fantasizing about being raped and writing about it in my diaries. No acknowledgement that she should never have read my private diary in the first place. No acknowledgement that she taught me “boys only want one thing”. No acknowledgement that she had a responsibility to create a world around me where I felt safe enough as a child to say “no” to someone forcing their control over me. No acknowledgement that she forced her control over me in ways that showed me I had no freedom, no right to my own consent or privacy in the home she forced me to live in under legal threat if I ran away. No acknowledgement that she had a responsibility to create a world around me where I felt empowered to say “yes” to what I truly wanted instead. Just blame.

Stop blaming Queers for how we cope with what you do to hurt us.

This is where anti-Queer people fail to observe the massive plank in their own eye when threatening us with violent domination and forced control, stripping away our freedoms and human rights, over an alleged splinter in ours. They say we shouldn’t engage in BDSM, that it’s immoral or some such insanity. But BDSM is literally just consenting adults getting together to play consensual, negotiated, respectful games with power, pain, and control. The irony of using your authoritarian-style power to cause us emotional and physical pain, deprive us of the freedom to heal ourselves in the ways that works best for us, and control us in ways we do not consent to by restricting how we are(n’t) allowed to express ourselves, runs deep. The irony of my mother blaming me for having rape fantasies as a teen instead of blaming the environment she created which caused me to feel I had no alternative, consensual, safe reality I could turn to, runs deep.

BDSM is a common and vital coping strategy for Queers. The weaponization of our coping strategies plays out every year at Pride parades between folks who want family-friendly, historically-sanitized, corporate rainbow events — and those of us who express leather-bound, minimally-clothed, AIDS-epidemic-aware gratitude for the unconventional coping skills that have helped us survive against all odds. People do exist who call themselves queer but then shame those of us who use BDSM as a healing strategy. I don’t know what kind of paradise they’re living in that they don’t feel the need to process their oppression through kinky affirmations of identity, love, trust, and respect in the privacy of their own home, ever. I do know that sometimes they try to earn brownie points from cisgender, vanilla outsiders by eagerly distancing themselves from us to show how “respectable” they are. Those folks can take their betrayal of the Queer community up with God.

Judgment of our coping strategies has been the basis for oppressive legal maneuvers to erase us for decades, by the same people who refuse to simply cultivate a less traumatizing world where maybe BDSM wouldn’t be necessary to cope with what they do to us. In the absence of that utopia, BDSM remains an historically imperative tool that trans and Queer people use to 

•reclaim our identities

•explore power dynamics in ways that have been denied to us by the patriarchy

•establish our bodily autonomy

•give voice to our consent in a world where where consent is not always afforded to us

•process pain and trauma in healthy ways that allow us to let go of what isn’t good for us

•and liberate one another from the absolute exhaustion of being on protective high-alert at all times in a society that loathes us. 

At a physiological and neurochemical level, BDSM functions to bring many of us down from daily states of fight-or-flight, recover from PTSD, and transcend the overwhelm so we can bear to face another day. BDSM is consent-respecting, safe, healthy, queer, cathartic, empowering, and usually community-centered. It’s an activity that allows us to collectively say, “This is the pain the world has caused me, and this is what we’re going to do for the next two hours to reclaim my sense of safety, personal responsibility, and healing from that pain.” Erasing BDSM from the trans experience is to erase much of the trans experience itself. Erasing BDSM from conversations about queerness means erasing Queer trauma, Queer survival strategies, and Queer methods of overcoming indescribable barriers. To deny us conversational space where BDSM is acceptable to discuss is to deny us conversational space where being fully, unapologetically Queer is acceptable. 

Is there any safe enough space to express myself? If so, where is that space? Does it only come one week a year? And only ever the kid-friendly version? Does that safe space even exist in Arkansas? What do we need to do for and with one another to create an adequately safe, adult, emotionally supportive, judgment-free space together?

Recently, I overheard more than a dozen teenagers gathered outside in a courtyard, passing around their phones and discussing their BDSM test results. One of them said “My highest score is age play,” and I shuddered. Is anyone sitting them down to teach him consent? How to negotiate? How to respectfully honor boundaries? How to choose dates and partners who will respect their boundaries? Or is that just going to be left up to the Washington County police officer who lives next door to them, like the one who taught me these things with his hand in my pants from the time I was 12 to 14?

One teen came up to me and asked how to tell the other kids he didn’t want to talk about it when he goes back to school, because the BDSM test has been a popular discussion topic in his jr. high school. He said his friends have been getting their sexual health education from Reddit because only abstinence-only education is allowed in Arkansas schools, which means they get no real education about sexual health and safety at all. For us to pretend the kids don’t already know about BDSM, and refuse to construct healthy conversations with them around it, is to set them up for a probable future of abusive relationships, mismanaged consent, and poor boundaries. 

I believe we owe the kids better education than to let them suffer through the unsafe learning experiences that taught me about BDSM when I was their age. I believe we owe them a world that doesn’t push them toward BDSM as a necessary coping strategy for reclaiming their autonomy from a society where their literal human rights, medical rights, and rights to participate in sports with their peers are being legislated against as though these teens are already second-class, sub-human citizens.

If you have a problem with teens exploring BDSM amongst themselves, stop doing non-consensual, sadistic forms of domination to them through legislative and social maneuvers designed to mistreat, abuse, and denigrate them.

And if you have a problem with adults who engage in BDSM as a completely valid, scientifically proven strategy for lowering our blood pressure, disengaging an overactive fight-or-flight response that stays hyper-engaged all the time for fear of what the next attack on us is going to be, and psychologically cushioning the impact of harms against us that are beyond our control — how about you take all your misplaced outrage, and turn that energy toward making the world less harmful for us, so we can find easier ways to relax than being tied up and beaten? You trying to control what we do with our bodies is precisely why we do what we do with our bodies to regain the control over ourselves that you’re taking, or allowing to be taken, away from us.

When you stop trying to control and take away personal power from Queer people, you might just be pleasantly surprised to find that we stop going to such intense lengths to take back our personal power from you.

Some light reading, for your educational convenience:

This article explores BDSM and how its practice can be used to cultivate healthy romantic relationships.

A new study finds that practitioners of bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism, or BDSM, score better on a variety of personality and psychological measures than “vanilla” people.

Recent research suggests that BDSM does not indicate a disordered mind and that its practitioners have relatively good mental health: they’re less neurotic, more conscientious, less sensitive to rejection and more open-minded. In 2013, a study also found that they report being generally happier than the general population.

It’s all about creating a safe space. It’s no wonder that some practitioners report feeling relaxed both after scenes and within their romantic relationships.

Queer Camp 2022

Camp was amazing. I am exhausted. The kids are alright.

Last week, 85 queer, transgender, and queer-friendly teenagers filled the building of our little Arkansas church to share activities, laughter, tears, sweat, creativity, and passion together. I was a “parental”, or what most folks would call a camp counselor. Spending the whole week with other queer adults providing safe space and support for queer kids was a tremendous nourishment for my soul.

I’ve decided we need to make a world where we get to be Queer together all the time. Straight people get to be around straight people all the time, everywhere they go. Cisgender people can expect to be around cisgender people in every space they occupy, daily. They just take for granted that the people around them are usually like them. And those of us who aren’t like them, we’re expected to keep our mouths shut about how we’re different. I know the social consequences of being the only openly trans person in an office, or the queer person, or the autistic person. We are expected to hide parts of ourselves that are integral to who we are, so the people who aren’t like us don’t feel uncomfortable, even though their insecurities are really not our problem. It’s even become second-nature to censor ourselves so we don’t upset the cis-hets.

Last week I didn’t have to censor myself at Queer Camp. I didn’t have to pretend some key part of my identity doesn’t exist. Even cooler, I was surrounded by people who shared these attributes with me. I felt at home. This needs to happen more than one week a year. And not just when we’re getting together for the kids. We need this deep community connection as adults, and we need it often.

My team co-leader cuddled with me at the end of Monday in the hallway of the church. That felt reminiscent of when I was in Seattle and had daily access to physical intimacy from a number of good friends. Cultivating active community where physical touch is normal, healthy, consensual, and nurturing is so underrated in Arkansas.

Halfway through the week, Jason Moore — yes, the director of Avenue Q and Pitch Perfect — showed up to help lead the campers’ film production project. I noticed him sitting in the auditorium on Wednesday and walked over to find out who the adult stranger in our midst was. We ended up talking for hours. Turns out he’s from Fayetteville and hadn’t been back in town for years. While many of the kids went fan-girly over his fame and fanfare, I found myself bewitched, bothered, and bewildered for a much rarer reason: Jason Moore is perhaps the most gracious human being I have ever met. When Jason walks in a room, he draws all the energy around him like a lightning rod. He commands that energy with indescribable grace, organizes it into gentle encouragements and humble suggestions, and disperses it back into the folks around him like rich seeds dropping into fertile soil during a light spring rain. He is kindness and brilliance incarnate — and he flew all the way to Arkansas from New York City just to hang out with us at Queer Camp like the kids were his very own beloved children. He learned their names. He played games. He was 100% down to earth, and just an absolute joy to be around.

Early in the week, I caught myself developing a crush on the Kitchen Lead. This startled me, because I’m typically attracted to gay men, and she is very much a lesbian woman. I dismissed the attraction all week in favor of focusing on my duties with the campers. The single most attractive feature that draws me to a person is competence, and she has plenty of that. Competent people tend to already be busy with all the important things going on in their lives though, and I assumed she wouldn’t be interested. But wouldn’t you know — she messaged me Saturday after camp to ask if we could get to know one another better!

Since then, we had our first date: a Quorum Court meeting where we both spoke out against the Republican Justices of the Peace’s efforts to expand the county jail and imprison more of us instead of investing in the drug rehabilitation and mental health services our communities need, and lack. I got up in front of the court to talk about how I was abused as a child raised by law enforcement professionals, and how I believe we need to heal the authoritarian culture within jails and police departments before we give any consideration (or taxes!) to expanding that culture. My date heard me lay my ugly truth out in full public witness — and she still wanted to hold my hand by the end of the night, so I guess the dating is going well. Thanks, Queer Camp!

Callie and Andi directed and led the camp this year with outstanding prowess. They took feedback, made adjustments, and rolled with the punches unfailingly. They handled crises. They organized the whole kit and kaboodle. They lifted the kids up, and lifted us volunteers up, and made the whole experience safe, honest, and real. If someone had told me five years ago I’d be spending a week in a church volunteering for a youth camp, I’d have thought they were out of their mind. But Callie and Andi, and the volunteer team they brought together, made it all worth showing up for. They helped turn a church, a place known for its history of harming queers, into a place that gave us healing.

Already we’re planning better things for next year’s Queer Camp. It’s a high bar as-is. Teaching queer youth how to hold space for one another, to heal their own hurts rather than oppressing others as they’ve been oppressed, and to recognize and resist bullying amongst themselves, is no small task. We’re talking about major cultural changes that take shape one conversation at a time. But next year, we’re going to build upon what we’ve learned in 2022 and hold such a space even better.

In the meantime, we have a whole year to explore being kind to one another, giving the love we want to receive in our communities, and practice being the kinds of adults we want our queer youth to grow into.

Service Made Visible: My Dog is a Radical Revolutionary

This is Max. Max is a Service Dog. He’s still in training, and I’m responsible for training him. He’s learning quicker than I expected. He’s been “at work” two days now. He was originally rescued in March, after his abusers decided he was a “bad dog” who wouldn’t listen or behave. He was afraid of everything. Max has come a long way in a short time.

We’ve been training together since the day Max found me and asked what was for lunch in the parking lot of a Love’s truck stop. I fell in love the moment I saw him. I didn’t know then that I needed an actual, legal service dog. I did know I was having mental health struggles and needed a friend who would love me real good while I kept working on remembering how to love myself.

I’ve had to learn a lot about pit bulls in that time, because pit bulls are not terriers. I am myself a Britney Spaniel/Australian Shepherd mix, who just happens to look like a human to the unsuspecting onlooker. I know what to do with an overly eager-to-please dog who loves to be rewarded for jumping hoops correctly. I know what to do with performance-oriented reward-seeking. Max ain’t that kind of dog.

Today, someone I love yelled at me. He said some real hurtful things. Things that have me realizing I’m not welcome in my home. Things that make me wonder why I ever thought I was. He said the hurtful words about ten minutes before I had to be at an evening workshop on Contemplative Writing hosted by the local public library. That was inconvenient timing.

As I exited the scene of explosive familial dysfunction splattered across the living room like a crime scene waiting to be secured and photographed, Max accompanied me to my office. I opened up the laptop. I clicked the Zoom link. I joined the writing workshop. It was 6:00 pm. I was on time. I’d jumped the hoop correctly. Now, for my reward!

Max put his paw on my leg like he needed to go out. I knew he didn’t need to go out, because I’d just taken him outside right before I got yelled at. I pushed his paw away and told him I was working. Another paw. Two paws. In my lap, all at once. 65 pounds of pit bull climbed onto me, as serious as a dragonfly in mating season. I was going to pay attention to him, dang it. He wanted to play. That silly computer I was looking at? Not as important as he was. This was the first time he has ever climbed onto my desk. While I was fighting him off, at that.

Shoot, I thought. Is he ever going to cut it as a service dog? Am I fooling myself? Sometimes he behaves so well. Then sometimes, he’s just such a handful. He won’t listen. He won’t stop. He does not care that I’m in a situation where my presence and attention is required in this very moment. He does not care that the people on this Zoom screen have PhDs and I need to hear what they’re teaching me. There’s no way I can train him to be a service dog, I think in frustration. This is too much, I would sigh, if I were breathing. He licks my face.

Max’s head pops through a magic virtual rainbow and onto the Zoom screen with all the other attendees. I think he’s trying to sniff them? He wants to know who these creatures are inside the computer demanding my energy right now when — don’t they see? — what Max wants here is more important than any of them. He is going to have my full attention whether any of us likes it or not.

I imagine this happening at the job I’m currently interviewing for. What if I were sitting at a meeting with the lead researchers, whose time is precious, carrying on our professional business? Then boom! There’s Max! Right in my face. Just like he’s doing now. This is unacceptable. I push him down off me repeatedly, but he’s only more insistent. God, if only I could afford a real trainer! Then I remember that a real trainer told me I have what it takes to train dogs for a living. I don’t know what that trainer was smoking when he said that, but apparently I need some of it. My dog is physically on top of me during class where I’m supposed to be paying attention. I don’t have what it takes for anything right now.

With my microphone muted, I take Max by the collar and escort him out of my office. I close the door behind me. He has to learn boundaries.

I walk back to my desk and sit down just long enough to feel the weight of my mistake sear into me like the seat I’m in is on fire. I stand back up. I open the door, pet him behind the ear, and go to Max’s backpack. I pull out an esophagus — his favoritest favorite treat in all of the treat kingdom.

“Okay, let’s go to work.” I put his service vest on him and take him back into the office. Then I apologize to my workshop crew that it took ten minutes to get present with them, after I’d just been yelled at and made to question whether I need to find a new place to live because I’m not wanted in the house I pay the mortgage on. I didn’t tell them that part.

“I’m sorry,” I typed. “My dog is trained to disrupt me when I’m dissociating. He’s making it really hard for me to pay attention to the workshop because he’s doing his job a little too well right now.”

I gave Max the esophagus. He had performed his duties admirably.

All my life, I’ve hidden dissociation. The first time I can identify having done it, I was three years old. It’s easy to sweep dissociation aside and pretend it’s not happening, just like whatever is causing it. I can tune in so attentively to one thing, one important thing, or one thing I convince myself is important, that I don’t notice the whole world burning down. Or the blood spatter of harsh words on the wall of my living room. I once gave a Trans 101 presentation to a packed audience at the 2016 Philly Trans Health Conference less than four hours after a surgeon drained my literally-exploded, three-week-old priapism into a plastic bag on the bed of his hotel room. I took the stage that day with hydrocodone rollin’ through my veins. My presentation was received with five-star reviews, a job offer, and extensive commendation. Y’all, I can dissociate like Vincent Van Gogh could paint.

Year after year, no one knew. No one knew the pain I was hiding all those times I stood center stage in the advocacy arena fighting for healthcare and social justice. No one knew I wasn’t feeling my own feelings, or that I was losing my ability to feel empathy for theirs. No one knew the slippery slope I was sliding down toward anger, frustration, rage, and despair. They just saw my career soaring. They saw the acceptance letter into the UW Masters of Public Health program. They saw measurable progress that was happening wherever I got involved. I guess they thought I was happy. I had certainly fooled myself. I thought being in a state of constant dissociation was as “happy” as I could get. I didn’t know any of the people around me were, you know, actually happy with their lives. I wasn’t trying to lie to them. I was just lying to myself so good, I couldn’t tell the truth if I’d wanted to.

Until one day, the truth caught up with me, and I lost everything. The grad school, the limelight, the gigs, the tenuous grip on reality I’d been clinging to. All of it. I lost it all. The people who’d been actually happy moved on with their lives, while I sat in a puddle of my own failure wondering where I’d gone wrong. Each time I tried to repeat the old patterns, or perform like everything was okay, the words that came out of my mouth were all wrong. I had no charisma to hide behind anymore. I’d lost that, too.

Max ain’t that kind of dog.

Now that he’s in my life, I’m incapable of hiding dissociation. He does not care if I’m in an interview on live television with Oprah. If I go all Shonda-Rhimes-before-she-loved-herself and dissociate during that interview, Max will be on top of me like a clown on a unicycle. Ain’t nobody gonna stop that dog from doing the only important thing in this world: Getting me to be present with myself, feel what I’m feeling, and not let the pressures of “work” or social expectations get in the way of that goal.

Max embodies what tens of thousands of people throughout the United States are striking for in their workplaces right now. He puts the brakes on expectations to leave our feelings at the door and show up as half-humans, like the Borg, to serve a force of assimilative destruction that cares only about its own self-promotion at the expense of any and all human lives. He’s not a bad dog. He’s a good dog guiding me through a bad situation. He’s a loyal friend who interrupts whatever is going on, to ask: But it can wait until you’re breathing real slow and deep again, and until you can name your feelings, right? We can play until you can do that. You can’t work until you do that. Come on, now. Be real.

You really can’t work if you can’t feel. Stop pretending you can. Breathe. Play. Now.

Like thousands of out-of-touch employers who dislike being exposed by their workers for treating the backbone of their organizations like worthless, disposable objects instead of real people with a full range of human emotions, I dislike that Max exposes my dissociation. I dislike that what was previously invisible, except insofar as the fruits of my labor eventually demonstrated themselves, I can no longer hide. Now my dissociation is as obvious as a 65-pound pit bull on top of my face.

I guess I’ll have to get with listening to what my heart has been demanding from the picket line.

Thanks, Max. You did good work today.

Happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day, National Coming Out Day, and Shiny New Certificate Day.

Both Indigenous Peoples’ Day and National Coming Out Day are dear to my heart.

At 14, I first “came out” in Arkansas where my self-extraction from the closet of Evanglical authoritarianism was not welcome. I called myself a lesbian, because I knew I wasn’t straight. Then I kept dating boys in high school who usually figured out they were gay around the time we broke up. I did not know how to be a gay man in my own body yet, but I spent more than a decade, years of hormone therapy, and a few surgeries trying to figure it out.

By 29, I’d learned being a gay man was not all it was cracked up to be. The gay part, yes. The man part? With cisnormative assumptions about how I was allowed to feel, and be, and express my rage and sadness about the harms of colonization and patriarchy? I couldn’t do it.

At 30, I retransitioned. Shedding the old, tired suit of manhood, I embraced the gown of Queerness. Changed hormone regimens again, which started a third puberty. I shifted to they/them pronouns, which I’d tried to do with the first transition but had been socially and medically pressured to “just choose one” cisnormative gender from the binary system despite my ineffective protests. I’d thought I was settling for “the lesser of two evils”. Now I understand what happens when I allow any evil to dwell in my heart. Never again.

I have since grown to understand that the binary system of gender exists to maintain white men’s illusory power over people of color and over non-men.

I wish a blessed Indigenous Peoples’ Day and — God willing — Indigenous Peoples’ Century to all the brilliant Two-Spirit folks whose names for your own gender, whose names in your own mother tongue, whose names for the world you love, deserve to be spoken fearlessly. As Dr. Mikaila Brown suggested during last week’s symposium at Cornell, may we forever more bring ourselves to meet you at the level of your power, and not reduce you to the level of your pain. You are what makes this world worth living in and living for.

With deep, profound gratitude, I am happy to build upon these life experiences with a new, shiny Executive Leadership Certificate from Cornell University in #Diversity and #Inclusion, received yesterday. This certificate confers not only an accomplishment, but a sacred duty to honor those who’ve made this moment possible. I intend to serve you well, dear loves.

Transcending Barriers for Safer Pleasure: A Publication for Transgender Women

This booklet was authored by Brandyn Gallagher in collaboration with Project Inform to provide the most up-to-date, science-based information available for transfeminine people at the time of publication in March 2016.

To learn more about PrEP, advancements in HIV prevention, and options for protecting your health and wellness, please ask your physician or visit https://www.facebook.com/groups/PrEPFacts/ for direction toward more current information.

Is Taking PrEP the Right Choice for You?

Brandyn Gallagher edited this booklet in collaboration with David Evans of Project Inform, updating an older version written for MSM so the writing is trans-inclusive as of January 2016. The scientific evidence upon which this writing is based was the most up-to-date available at the time of publication.

To learn more about PrEP, advancements in HIV prevention, and options for protecting your health and wellness, please ask your physician or visit https://www.facebook.com/groups/PrEPFacts/ for direction toward more current information.

Will the AMP Study Set the Standard for Transgender Inclusion in HIV Prevention Research?

This November, the AMP Study (also known as HVTN 703/HPTN 081) will bring a fresh approach to HIV prevention research. The Phase 2B study is inspired by vaccine research, which seeks to arm the immune system to resist HIV infection — but it skips a step by directly giving HIV-negative people antibodies rather than using a vaccine to trigger the desired antibody response. However, the AMP study is notable for more than this new approach to HIV prevention. It’s also engaging transgender people and people of color at every step of the process, and is the first HIV prevention clinical efficacy trial to explicitly name transgender men as an eligible population to be included in the study.

As explained by HIV Vaccine Trials Network (HVTN)’s lead behavioral scientist, Michele Andrasik, Ph.D., the AMP Study is taking “a true community-based participatory approach.” Trans people and people of color have been involved in writing the protocol, crafting language on enrollment forms and reviewing informed consent and educational materials. Trans people have been employed to fill clinic staff openings, and professional consultants with lived trans experience have been hired to train cisgender (non-transgender) clinicians and staff.

Even as clinic staff have been learning about the concept of AMP in preparation for trial launch, they’ve also been adjusting to the idea of working with transgender people — a minority population that has been widely excluded from HIV research despite a 1993 federal law prohibiting such exclusions.

As a transgender advocate, I’ve been working with the staff of the AMP Study as a member of their community advisory board. A month before the trial’s launch, I sat down with Andrasik and the AMP Study’s community engagement project manager, Gail Broder to hear more about their experiences in this process.

“It’s been interesting, because we usually hear that studies move too slow, but we’re not hearing that,” Andrasik noted. “There’s a balance between moving forward … and ensuring that all the appropriate community stakeholders have a say.”

“Some staff want more time to learn because AMP is a new concept, and because working with trans people also seems new to them,” Broder said. “Once we start explaining, it’s really pretty simple for people to understand.”

“Are they really so ‘hard to reach’? Or have we just not figured out how to reach them?” Andrasik asked rhetorically about minority populations, while emphasizing the importance of positively engaging those populations financially whenever possible. She notes that community participation means more than merely soliciting feedback from members of minority communities — who may or may not get paid — to inform work being controlled by white cisgender people receiving a salary. Moreover, she stresses that including minorities in research is imperative for good data, and if researchers want minority participation in their research, they must begin by hiring staff and leadership from those minority groups.

That can be an intimidating shift for professionals who aspire to work as allies to transgender people, especially once they’re confronted by the rest of society and its attachment to unexamined attitudes and practices on gender and whiteness. But no one said being an ally was easy.

“We booked reservations for community stakeholders to meet at a hotel, but the reservation system required us to enter ‘Mr.’, ‘Mrs.’, or ‘Ms.’ for each attendee. We were baffled,” said Broder, sharing her growing appreciation for the difficulties trans people face while trying to do basic things she takes for granted every day. “We said: ‘We don’t know if this person is a ‘Mr.’ or a ‘Ms.’. They’re just a human being trying to attend this meeting. Just leave it blank and enter their name.’ But the hotel staff couldn’t do that. It’s a hotel room! Why does it matter whether they’re a ‘Mr.’ or a ‘Ms.’ or neither? We’re paying the same for everyone, but no one can opt out of being non-consensually gendered.”

“Ultimately we called the hotel specifically to discuss the problem with their reservation system and to explain why they need to not call people ‘Mr.’ when they show up to check in,” Broder said. “We’re trying to be as proactively educational as we can be and help all the cisgender people we work with along the way to understand that we [cisgender people] aren’t the only people who exist, and good customer service means respecting everyone.”

Broder added that “stock photo sites did not have appropriate images,” and that the HVTN chose to deliberately recruit — and monetarily compensate — trans people and people of color for photo shoots to appropriately reach the minority populations most impacted by HIV.

Despite often-heard fears expressed by the research community about the “hard to reach” transgender population, early findings reveal that HVTN’s choice to genuinely engage minorities is paying off, with the communities it needs to reach taking notice after decades of being turned away as research participants.

“Transgender people can be a part of our research studies, and they’re great participants, and we need to be including them in all of our trials because they’re part of the population relying on these data, too,” Andrasik expressed emphatically. “We’ve found, in our limited sample size in phase I studies, that transgender participants appear to have no greater chance of HIV outcome than their cisgender counterparts, and they have the same rate of showing up to clinic appointments.”

Sites have begun actively recruiting trans people not just for the AMP study, but also for many clinical trials across all levels of risk. The impact on enrollment, though anecdotal and unpublished for now, has been positive across the board.

“Did visibly including trans people in our recruitment efforts improve overall recruitment and ability to reach enrollment goals? It appears that the answer may be ‘yes’,” Andrasik stated.

“People keep saying ‘we don’t have the epidemiology data to include trans people in this study’, but then they don’t do the research needed to correct the exclusion,” Broder stated. “You just have to start including minorities. Start where you can. Don’t wait for someone else to do it. Just start.”

Where do I fit in? PrEP and Transgender Men

View original publication on BetaBlog.org

When I read results from clinical trials about PrEP—or other HIV prevention tools or strategies for that matter—I’m often left wondering: Where do I fit in?

There aren’t guidelines about Truvada-based PrEP use for transgender men who have sex with men because there haven’t been any studies specifically looking at how the drug works in our bodies. In fact, major PrEP clinical efficacy trials have not included transgender men in any of their study populations to date. Robert Grant, MD, MPH, the principal investigator of the first successful randomized controlled PrEP trial with human subjects, iPrEx, confirmed this, saying, “to my knowledge, no trans men have been included in PrEP research.”

Grant says that it’s challenging to get study protocols that include transgender men approved. “The study sponsors will often ask that trans women and men be excluded if there will not be sufficient recruitment for a separate analysis. We had to argue to include trans women in iPrEx. We wanted to include trans men too, but we did not have estimates of HIV incidence among trans men that were required for inclusion in an efficacy trial.”

Because the majority of transgender men have reported condomless anal or vaginal sex with cisgender (non-transgender) men, it makes sense from a public health standpoint to include us in studies in order to capture the role we play in HIV prevention and transmission as a part of the MSM population.

Studies that present their findings as applicable to all MSM but do not include transgender MSM in their data fall short of having representative samples. This gap in our research agenda, evidence-based recommendations, and knowledge of PrEP has important clinical, ethical, and practical implications. Not knowing how PrEP can, and will, work for transgender bodies means that we’re left to wonder—are we truly protected?

“The lack of information about PrEP in trans men is a real problem,” said Grant.

The PrEP CDC guidelines tell us that it may take different amounts of time for people to achieve full protection based on whether they’re exposed to HIV rectally or vaginally. Many PrEP providers tell male patients that they will be adequately protected against HIV after seven consecutive days of adherence, with the assumption that their patients will be exposed to HIV only during anal sex.

Providers may fail to note, however, that Truvada takes longer to accumulate in vaginal tissue—and that transgender men often do not engage exclusively in anal intercourse. The best available information suggests that transgender men who have receptive vaginal intercourse will be protected after 20 consecutive days of dosing, when Truvada reaches its maximum concentration in the body.

Everything known about how PrEP works during vaginal sexual exposure is based on studies of cisgender women—but transgender men have different biological and physiological considerations than cisgender women. Transgender men oftentimes experience vaginal atrophy as a result of testosterone use. Might this condition significantly change the effectiveness of Truvada as PrEP?

Many men are unable or unwilling to use condoms for receptive vaginal intercourse because of the tearing and bleeding that often occurs during sex with vaginal atrophy. Does PrEP provide better HIV protection in combination with condoms despite the damage caused, or counterintuitively, does PrEP provide better protection without condoms since they may exacerbate tissue damage?

PrEP providers may reassure male patients that it’s not a big deal to miss a single dose once in a rare while1, based on the iPrEx OLE study which found no seroconversions among MSM who took Truvada at least 4 times per week. Because no transgender men were included in the iPrEx study, however, we can’t say for sure if this also holds true for transgender men. Cisgender women need to have nearly perfect adherence in order for PrEP to provide full protection against HIV. Is this the case for transgender men who engage in receptive vaginal intercourse, too?

It will be some time before PrEP research is able to fill in the missing data for trans men and answer these questions, but it is critical that efforts begin immediately. Transgender men are currently experiencing a watershed moment of visibility in the larger gay community. Casual bath house sex, cruising, and hooking up using phone apps are increasingly commonplace.

“The field desperately needs HIV and STD prevalence and incidence data, as well as information on demographics, comorbidities, and risk behaviors. In concert with epidemiologic characterization, at-risk trans men should be included in HIV prevention studies based on the type of exposure being investigated—that is, trans men who engage in receptive rectal intercourse should be included with other populations who have receptive rectal intercourse, and trans men who engage in receptive vaginal intercourse should be included in studies of others who have the same sexual practices,” said Raphael J. Landovitz, Associate Professor of Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at UCLA.

Despite the gaps in clinical knowledge of how PrEP works for transgender men, all evidence supports the idea that Truvada provides a high degree of protection in people who take the pill consistently as prescribed—with no reason to believe that it is ineffective for transgender people. Even if there is a slight reduction in effectiveness, which has not yet been tested and is thus unknown, PrEP isrecommended for anyone HIV-negative at substantial risk for HIV infection.

PrEP may well be a life saver for transgender people who are disproportionately affected by HIV risk factors like poverty, unstable housing, discrimination, survival sex work, and disconnection from health care. We can’t give up on including transgender people in medical research. The urgency with which this minority population needs evidence-based guidance on sexual health care recommendations is an opportunity to improve the humanity of science moving forward.


View original publication on HIV Equal

In my younger years, I was called a faggot. I did not consent to this. A kid in gym class swung a three-foot metal pole at my head, and the teacher didn’t care when I reported being bullied. I grew older and connected with mentors who’ve since passed on their own lessons to me about moving through the world being irremediably and obviously gay. Being a faggot is not synonymous with being a gay man, however. Many gay men do not identify as faggots – and some faggots do not identify as men. We’re a diverse bunch like that. But regardless of our internal identities, it’s a word we’ve all heard.

“I was called faggot growing up. I hated it because I knew those jocks were right. I hated they could see the thing I was trying so hard to hide,” a friend shared with me early in my transition. “Calling someone faggot, for me, is basically saying, ‘I can see what you really are. The thing you’re trying to hide.’”

Isn’t that why we hate the word? Because people see us, and sometimes they hate what they see, so we try harder than anything not to be seen at all? Because being called “faggot” means we’re failing to convince our oppressors that we’re their equal? Because invisibility feels safer, and we’re exhausted from living in constant fear?

There are certain images the word “faggot” evokes – images of brutality, of discrimination, of vitriol; images of disease, of stigma, of suffering; images of loneliness, of brokenness, of heartbreak.

In those same images though, I see something more.

Survival. Perseverance. Strength. Determination. Triumph. Authenticity. People who call themselves faggots exhibit courage beyond measure. We have stared Death in the eyes and refused to blink. We are more than deviant sex behind closed doors. We are a tribe in which membership has nothing to do with our genital configurations or our blood, and everything to do with the capacity of our ever-expansive hearts to love one another in the face of great and divisive adversity.

In embracing my faggotry, I embrace my resilience. Owning this aspect of my identity is an expression of gratitude – both toward my former self for making my way through Hell alive, and toward those strong-willed fighters who came before me for the contributions they’ve made to the world I live in today.

Being a faggot means living in a way that feels right to me as a priority over what’s expected. It means being seen for the rawness of my humanity rather than the mask I so often wear. It means taking struggles and obstacles by the horns and hacking my way through them without reservation. It means surviving a part of my identity I once believed could only result in my death. It means being a whole human being whose sexuality, whose existence, requires no apology.

This word holds the same meaning regardless of who is saying it. It is the intent that changes. The intent is what we respond to. The intent is where its power comes from.

Jocks in high school: “I see what you really are. I hate you. I don’t want you to live, faggot.”

My partners: “I see what you really are. I want you. Don’t hide from your authenticity, faggot.”

Me: “I see what you really are. I love you. There is nothing shameful about being a faggot.”